On Direct Action With Trump Around

The day before police evicted the Frontline Encampment directly in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Jesse Jackson appeared at the blockade on horseback. Celebrity appearances at the DAPL resistance always gave the sleepless days and nights of Native American ceremony, construction equipment lockdowns, and riot police deployments a surreal tinge. But as police violence escalated and the conflict land defenders had anticipated for months loomed, the appearance of the civil rights icon and 1980s presidential candidate riding toward the burning barricades on North Dakota State Highway 1806 pushed the confrontation into the territory of a dream.

Now Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered the eviction of the main encampment where thousands are resisting the pipeline—which is being constructed behind a fortress of razor wire fencing, floodlights, and armored vehicles—and is refusing to plow roads into the camp, refusing emergency services, and preventing delivery of supplies to water protectors. Police violence has already cost one woman her arm and potentially another vision in an eye and sent an elder into cardiac arrest, but now the state is simply trying to kill people.

This waking nightmare trajectory—events which simultaneously suspend one’s sense of reality and fill one with overwhelming dread—is of course paralleled in the ascendancy of a delusional fascist reality television star to the office of President and his subsequent appointment of a cadre of comic book villains to cabinet positions. In these moments of almost unbelievable human crisis and global change, in addition to political theory and movement history, one might look for guidance on how to respond in fictional narratives. As a friend recently said, “We are living in dystopian science fiction, and we better start acting like it.”

The following are a few thoughts on how to live up to that mandate. They begin with those narrowest in scope, pertaining directly to addressing the climate crisis and systemic ecological collapse, then move to inherent connections between movements attempting to do this and others addressing incarceration and repression, and finally into thoughts on general strategies against Trump’s assault on human dignity. What they have in common—the motivation for citing science fiction as a useful road map forward—is that they assume a situation that is so terrible it does not seem real engenders possibilities for liberatory action which otherwise would not be possible.

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Trump and Climate

It is worth noting that Trump’s presidency is forcing mainstream media to acknowledge that current and prospective policies are ending life as we know it. What is so remarkable about this is that it was also true under Obama and would assuredly have remained so under Clinton, but because Clinton presented a facade of climate progress while acquiescing to the fossil fuel industry, her administration would have been characterized by NGOs, media, and other institutions placing a greater emphasis on federal policies and international climate accords which would have been weak or altogether immaterial. Because Trump flatly denies the reality of our burning world, these same entities must now join the rest of us in soberly contemplating how to address the crisis when mechanisms within traditional venues of institutional power clearly and unequivocally do not exist.

For instance, The Atlantic recently featured an article titled “The Electoral College Was Meant to Stop Men Like Trump from Becoming President,” arguing that he represented an unprecedented danger, and citing the climate crisis as the first justification. Had Clinton or another Republican become president, an equally convincing article could have been written arguing that this same crisis required some other action as remarkable and radical as electoral college intervention in the election, but it would have been more likely to appear in the Earth First! Journal.

During the era of Tar Sands Blockade, the Washington Post editorial board decried the fight against the Keystone pipeline and argued that protesters should, instead of fighting infrastructure projects, direct their energies toward pushing for a federal carbon tax (a legislative impossibility then just like it is now). Now that the Post is appropriately terrified of the power structure, it creates the possibility they’ll stop arguing for imaginary solutions within it and be forced to listen more closely to those who have already taken matters into their own hands. This should be seen as an opportunity to normalize heretofore radical approaches to climate change.

Direct action which exerts influence on sub-national entities was already a central strategy for addressing the climate crisis. Federal intransigence on climate is such that most plausible scenarios for significant near-term emissions reductions involve states, counties, and municipalities—who have managed to convince themselves that meaningful climate action is the job of someone with more power, like the federal government and the United Nations—to find diverse and creative ways to dismantle their fair share of the fossil fuel economy. There are many with non-federal institutional power who do truly understand the gravity of the climate crisis and do understand that no one is coming to save them, but the political steps necessary are so extraordinary and difficult that strategic direct action will be necessary to compel action.

The fact that those with the most power in the United States—those who share Trump’s poor grasp on reality and those who understand climate alike—are allowing the planet to die is a scathing indictment of the political system, but it ultimately might not be bad for global ecology. A significant federal or international climate strategy would have diminished prospects for alternate approaches at lesser scales of power. Such a strategy would have almost inevitably been market and technology driven and would have failed to achieve necessary emissions reductions. A heterogeneous patchwork of approaches at multiple scales of power is actually a far more plausible scenario for addressing climate, as it allows real world observation of the effects of multiple strategies. It also creates more opportunities to realistically advocate for conceptually distinct approaches from those utterable in the halls of federal power, like addressing fossil fuel extraction as well as consumption.

Now that we’ve descended into overt dystopian nightmare, cities, counties and states that have had trouble grasping it is their job to deny a permit for a coal export terminal or a natural gas facility on the basis of climate have no more hypothetical future federal strategies to defer to. This is an opportunity.

Infrastructure battles will remain critical. It is not altogether clear to what extent Trump will actually find ways to massively increase fossil fuel extraction through the elimination of federal regulation without the construction of considerable new infrastructure. Lack of infrastructure is already the primary constraint on extraction for many fossil fuel reserves. For instance, federal auctions of Powder River Basin coal were already receiving no bids before Obama’s moratorium on new federal lands coal leases, because the domestic market is at capacity, as are marine export terminals. More terminals need to be constructed for federal coal extraction to substantially increase. Infrastructure capacity also was the primary constraint on Bakken oil production in the Midwest before the price of oil declined.

The vast reserves of fossil fuels Trump wants to open up to corporations were in many cases already open to corporations, and the infrastructure necessary to expand extraction wasn’t constrained by federal regulation so much as local campaigns which have been killing infrastructure projects through state, county, and municipal mechanisms (with a few federal interventions thrown in). Obama made numerous policies that diminished federal barriers to the rapid construction of new pipelines and fossil fuel rail and marine terminals. In this area, Trump may have to look harder than he thinks for cumbersome regulations to undo.

The importance of campaigns against infrastructure will continue, but it will be different under Trump in that direct action has always been central to these campaigns, and the consequences for doing direct action are likely to increase.

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Climate Direct Action, Mass Incarceration, and Mass Deportation

In order to intervene in the climate crisis, we must do direct action which guarantees we will experience state repression. This is true with or without a xenophobic bag of tanning lotion in the White House. Arguably the moment of most decisive confrontation with fossil fuel hegemony in the US from climate-specific direct action to date came when the #ShutItDown activists turned the valves of all five tar sands pipelines entering the United States from Canada, stopping the flow of oil. The action shut down 15% of America’s domestic oil supply, affected the market, and spread fear among investors. It also resulted in activists facing potential prison sentences of many decades.

In order to shift our current climate trajectory, we must engage in direct action which is deeply disruptive and which makes the climate crisis not just understood by those in power but felt. #ShutItDown illustrates that in order to do this, we must take action which pits us directly against the massive apparatus of surveillance, incarceration, and militarized policing that the United States has developed. We must attempt to cope with alarming tendencies to criminalize dissent in general and label activism terrorism.

The struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline of course also illustrates that the fight against the fossil fuel industry is inherently a fight against the apparatus of repression. Strategies against this industry are impossible to contemplate without simultaneously contemplating strategies for resisting, and maximizing the political benefit of, the state’s response. This should be seen as simply another dimension of the work—like having a media contact list and meetings—without which it cannot proceed.

The #ShutItDown activists facing criminal charges are attempting to argue the necessity defense in court—that their illegal actions were necessary to prevent the greater harm of climate catastrophe. In other words, these activists both took the kind of disruptive action that creates real crisis for the system and also anticipated the response of the legal system as an intrinsic part of their political approach. The necessity defense is only one such framework, but it seems imperative that something of this nature be integrated into many of our actions.

The fact that we must face repression and the fact that people are subject to mass incarceration and deportation creates a logical nexus for connecting climate action with other struggles. This is not to say that the conflicts with the legal system are identical in each case, but let us look to Standing Rock to see that there is a valid cohesion. Direct action drove Dakota Access Pipeline construction from the Missouri River for months and from a larger area west of the river for weeks. But ultimately, police and federal law enforcement deployed in enormous numbers, with heavy weaponry, armored vehicles, sound cannons, surveillance teams, and a penchant for brutality, and construction resumed in the area as a military endeavor.

The fact that a government needs the capacity to wage domestic warfare on its citizens (and the capacity to imprison them in mass) is a scathing indictment of that government, and in the United States it wasn’t always the case. The current state of the criminal justice system is the result of a series of policies that began under Nixon as a response both to the political unrest and the increase in urban violence of the 1960s, policies which had noteworthy escalations under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Policies motivated by social unrest tend to result in police forces with heavier weaponry and more of a large-scale tactical emphasis, whereas policies motivated by fear of crime tend to result in not only more heavily armed cops but also the construction of lots and lots of prisons. Ultimately, though, however much these conceptually distinct motivations may exist for the current police state, many of the mechanisms that actually create it—such as federal funding for police tactical units and transfers of military equipment to local police forces—make no clear distinctions.

Obama’s recent words and gestures concerning mass incarceration, and a handful of other moments of mainstream political discomfort with the extent of America’s prisons and police forces, indicate there are plausible near-term scenarios in which legitimate gains could be made. Of course, with the Trump ascendancy, in the very near-term prospects for diminishing the scope of the police state look horribly dire. But again (this being an ubiquitous theme of organizing in this new world we find ourselves in), we should use the fact that a good deal of the power structure is deeply alienated from Trump as an opportunity to normalize heretofore radical positions.

Time and again, fear of crime and social chaos has proven adequately politically potent that mainstream opposition to ever-increasing police and prisons has been both sparse and tepid. We should be making claims and taking action against the criminal justice system which centers the elementally simple truth that using as much force against people as the United States does, and locking as many people up, is fundamentally immoral.

Of course, Black Lives Matter is a nationwide mass movement already engaged in a powerful confrontation with state violence. Explicitly and meaningfully connecting climate work to the movement for black lives should somewhat increase that movement’s political impact (if for no other reason than an increase in numbers, as many mobilized on climate aren’t on black lives). Something on the order of the very publicly visible and consciously articulated alliance of labor and environmentalism that occurred around the era of the WTO seems necessary for climate defense, indigenous rights, and movements against police violence. In the case of climate defense and indigenous rights, a significant proportion of the battles are in fact the very same battles, and these movements share a need to dismantle the police state with the movement for black lives.

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Direct Action and Institutional Power

Direct action can influence the behavior of political entities which are capable of significantly impeding Trump’s agenda. This is true in many respects. The fact that so much of the political establishment, even on the right, is adverse to Trump likely creates unique opportunities. A number of his pronouncements of policy—like rescinding NAFTA and opening up vast new reserves of federal fossil fuels—clearly were made without a good deal of thought about the actual mechanisms or logistical realities in question. Often, establishment aversion to Trump seems less based on morality than on an abhorrence for his disinterest in time honored protocols. This underscores the fact that institutional collaboration at all levels is necessary for any of this madman’s visions to become reality, and in a way that has perhaps never been true of a US president, it isn’t at all clear where he will and will not receive that collaboration.

The city of San Francisco issued a resolution in response to Trump’s election that is so beautiful it honestly might make you cry. Crucially, the resolution does not simply denounce Trump’s agenda, but makes clear the city will not participate in it. The whole thing truly is worth reading in its entirety, but a characteristic passage reads: “…no matter the threats made by President-elect Trump, San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City. We will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population.”

Institutional countermeasures such as this are absolutely necessary, on a very wide scale, to neutralize the threats that Trump poses. These are important both as actual impediments to evil acts and as a means of diminishing the political empowerment of the administration to pursue further evil. We should take very seriously the notion that moments of crisis are moments of opportunity and be willing to consider the possibility that some institutions of power may be willing to act with far more principle and courage than before. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should begin appealing to city councils and state legislatures at every conceivable turn—we can also influence institutional behavior without directly engaging it on its terms, or even acknowledging the institutions in question as valid. But it is worth thinking very seriously about how our actions interact with the motivations, values, and likely behaviors of those who, however crazy, aren’t quite as crazy as Trump.

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